through NANCY ZWIERS, founder, Funosophy Inc.
In the latest issue of the toy book, The first part of this series discussed how children have an inner playfulness based on biology. This follow-up delves deeper into the first step and examines key play patterns for babies and toddlers ages 0-2. These age breaks are not separate breaking points, but rather represent a bell curve – some children are earlier and others are later in the transition to the next stage.
The primary role of play for infants and toddlers is to help them structure their knowledge of the physical world. The sensorimotor system supports the development of the five senses and the ability to move their bodies in physical space, giving rise to the first basic play patterns we all share.
Exploration & Discovery
Toddlers are encouraged to explore their immediate surroundings, which in turn stimulates their five senses. The brain circuits for wiring our senses develop in this way. For infants, the senses of proximity – touch, taste, and smell – are most important initially, while our distant senses of sight and sound gain importance as infants grow older. Right now, with our emphasis on light and sound, the tactile nature of toys may be underdeveloped for toys intended for toddlers.
Part of exploring the environment is developing an understanding of the law of cause and effect and its own “agent” in the world: “When I do this, it happens,” etc. support this learning. The script also takes this extremely well into account.
The mastery game at this age is all about the development of motor skills: mastering our ability to move our limbs and our body in physical space (gross motor skills) and manipulating objects in 3D space with our hands (fine motor skills) . The brain development necessary to master motor skills in 3D space is the foundation of all cognitive brain functions (even abstract thinking) and cannot be overstated. The value of the manipulation game is actually pre-STEM learning.
The “Put ‘n Take” game – when infants methodically put objects into a “container” and take them out – is one of the most engaging play models for toddlers. This piece supports the exploration of the concept of containers, volume, top, bottom, etc., which formed the basis of many abstract reflections later on. Of course, mastering the manipulation of the objects involved also develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
The mastery game also appears in higher-order cognitive and language development. Infants who learn to listen, speak and sing learn language in a playful way. Early cognitive development includes learning ABCs and 123s, as well as the foundation of basic categorization, which is a key mechanism for how our brains work with concepts. In other words, infants learn to categorize objects in their world (eg dog). Categorization of concrete objects – those with which they can physically interact – is the level of categorization that young children can understand.
Neuroscientists postulate that we all have “mirror neurons” in our brains that cause us to mirror the behaviors and emotions around us. The discovery in 1995 of these specialized neurons led scientists to hypothesize that they are the engine of socialization, stimulating our evolutionary progress about 25,000 years ago. We no longer have to learn from direct experience: we can learn from others.
Young children love to imitate. Infants socialize quickly by observing and imitating those around them, and those they are used to imitating change with age. In toddlers, imitation role play is largely stimulated by parental behaviors: baby care, cooking, cleaning, drinking tea, talking on the phone, driving, using power tools, etc. These parent-modeled behaviors appear in children’s play, and as a result, new parenting behaviors such as interacting with screens create new role-play opportunities.
Evolution of gaming models
These three early play patterns are evolutionarily proven ways of connecting our brains to survival. They appear from our very first moments as newborn babies, and although they will stay with us for life, they will never be as strong as they are in infancy. Toys that tap into these innate impulses will be of more interest to children.
Part three in this series in the next issue of the toy book explore how these early fundamental play patterns are eclipsed by new play patterns between ages 3 and 7.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of the toy book. Click here to read the full issue!